Caul Baby, the first novel from bestselling nonfiction writer Morgan Jerkins, opens with the story of Laila, one of the “last vestiges of the Black elite in Strivers’ Row,” a well-to-do Harlemite in the late ’90s who has struggled for years to carry a child to term. “Her body was a desolate land, each crack in her earth a forewarning from the last child to future ones that this place was no home,” Jerkins writes about Laila’s chronic infertility. Framing these reproductive sagas as a bodily drama, Jerkins likens Laila’s successive miscarriages to a kind of fetal mutiny. “Some fetuses grew, saw dents of their past siblings in her womb, and joined them in the ether,” she writes. After numerous lost pregnancies, Laila seems convinced she may be in need of external support to combat the war in her womb. Succumbing to local gossip and fear of another miscarriage, the expectant mother turns to the folklore of the Melancons—a bourgeois family of matriarchs from Louisana with a distinctive caul—who are said to hold great healing power sourced from their additional layer of skin. The family’s caul functions as a kind of lifeline—an extradermal insurance of sorts. For, in order to preserve their station in the rapidly changing landscape of Harlem, the family must also ensure that the magic of their caul can endure the threats of modernity.
A caul—the birth membrane of amniotic fluid that envelops a fetus in utero—is known, on rare occasions, to cover the faces of newborn babies. Regarded as a kind of interlocutor between the world before and beyond the womb, the caul bearer is often featured as a prominent figure within mystical and spiritual lore around the world. Although the caul itself is most often removed following birth, within New Orleans and Afro-Caribbean voodoo traditions, the caul-clad newborn is understood to be distinguished by being born with this very covering. For those who believe in the power of the caul, there’s even benefit to be had in merely possessing the membrane for consumption or safekeeping. Rendered in a magical realist mode, the Melancons enter the literary canon of fictional caul bearers—such as those found in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Tina McElroy Ansa’s Baby of the Family, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Ninth Ward—who are inextricably bound by traditions and trials of U.S. history in ways only Northerners who practice the folk medicine of the South can be.
Given the complexity of their status as mystical interlocutors, it’s unsurprising that there’s a division in the way the Melancons are perceived within their community. Plagued by a schism forged with generational, regional, and class divides, the consensus around Melancon magic and rootwork medicine tells the story of a transforming community made up of believers and nonbelievers alike. Of the “other side” of nonbelievers, Jerkins asserts that a distaste for the past is the basis for their disapproval. In their eyes, the power of the caul amounts to nothing more than “a fabrication brewed by old times Harlemites who could never trust institutions with their health.” “Whatever rootwork that the old folks did could not be found in Harlem’s labyrinthine streets but in the South, where it belonged and flourished, the soil having absorbed blood and sweat from the enslaved,” Jerkins writes.
Finding herself somewhere in between the skeptics and the devotees, Laila seeks out the help of the Melancons and quickly regrets her newfound faith in the old guard’s magic. Overcome with paranoia and the desire to designate the successor of their caul klan, the Melancons back out of their deal with Laila, and she subsequently suffers a stillbirth. In the aftermath of yet another reproductive tragedy, a primal rage is activated within Laila and she springs into vengeful action. “Bring me to my feet,” she orders her sister Denise. “Lay, sweetheart, I think you should stay where you are until the ambulance comes. You’ve just given birth,” Denise says. “No, I didn’t,” Laila says. “Giving birth would mean my child was breathing.” In the absence of breath, Laila’s stillborn child succeeds in animating her maternal grievances and authoring her spiral into mental and emotional disarray.
The devastations that follow are practically predestined. After she confronts the Melancons with the lifeless body of her child, Laila is arrested. The pot of boiling water left on the stove during her labor catches on fire and burns her marital home, a beloved brownstone, to the point of inhabitability. And as for the marriage Laila fostered in that home with her husband, Ralph, a successful architect and otherwise loving partner, shares a similar fate of burnout. “Loss knew her body better than her husband,” Jerkins writes. Displaced by the loss that subsumed his wife, it comes as no surprise when Ralph, himself consumed by grief and guilt, leaves Laila once and for all. Running parallel to this narrative of infertility and misfortune is the tale of Laila’s niece, Amara, a college student who discovers, against all her best wishes for her life, that she’s also pregnant.
After carrying the child to term, Amara orchestrates a private adoption of her baby girl, Hallow, the novel’s titular “caul baby,” who is born with an “unusual caul.” Unbeknownst to Amara, the private arrangement results in Hallow being raised by Josephine, a daughter of the Melancons, and the woman who once promised her aunt Laila the caul she did not receive. As the novel weaves and wanders through the lives of Amara and Hallow, Caul Baby orients itself through the lineage of each family, the one Hallow inherited by blood and the one she was adopted into. Described as “a girl whose body forged the gap between myth and reality,” Hallow sits at the intersection of both familial narratives of desperation. Thus, when the histories collide, she must learn to “heal in places where the caul could not reach.” The book, which is dedicated to “Black mothers [past, present, and future],” tells a tale of generational trauma set around themes of maternity, accountability, reconciliation, and reckoning. The novel tends most effectively to these matters in the moments where these thematic concerns appear in the interior conflicts of the characters.
Unlike interpersonal dialogue that hinges on the intricacies of rapport and relationship, the characters’ internal processing within the novel is afforded the freedom of thoughts not always tethered to actions. Although she doesn’t look at her child after giving birth, Amara’s rumination upon the decision offers an embodied maternal ambivalence. “Maybe, Amara thought, it was a mistake not to look her child in the face, because now all she was left with was a primal feeling in the gorging of her breasts, the bleeding in her thick compression underwear, and the bloated belly,” Jerkins writes. Leaving room for both the Lailas who crave motherhood and the Amaras who find themselves troubled by it, Caul Baby is a meditation on the birthing and building of Black women’s lives.